Featured Street photographer: Michael Martin from Manhattan, New York

Eric’s Note: Michael Martin is an incredible street photographer from Manhattan, New York who captures touching images from the people around him. The strength of his images not only are shown through his consistency, but also through the colorful portraits he captures as well. You can truly feel the energy of the city that he lives and breathes. Read more to check out this exclusive interview with him below.

"Discretions" by Michael Mann

1. Michael, how did you get started in street photography?

"The Shadow of Doubt" by Michael Martin

About five years ago, a coworker turned me on to Flickr.  I was pretty serious about photography back in the early 70’s, when I was a teenager, so none of the technical aspects were entirely foreign to me.  But my first passion was always writing, so the photography eventually fell off.   After joining Flickr, I bought new equipment and began shooting every day.  It quickly became an obsession.  When I stumbled across the work of people like Art Cummings, Bradford Kim, and several others in the Flickr street groups, I realized that candid photography was what I really wanted to do. Initially, I wasn’t bold enough to get out there in front of strangers, so I took the safe route and shot parade participants, protesters, street performers, and others who have candid moments while more or less expecting to be photographed.  It took a while to grow into it.

2. How is it different shooting in the streets of New York City from shooting other places?

"Move" by Michael Martin

When you say New York City, I take it that you mean Manhattan?  Personally, I feel that the further you go from Manhattan the more difficult it is to work the street.  In Manhattan, particularly the high traffic areas like Midtown, people are generally preoccupied with the business of getting from one place to another, especially during the week when the overall vibe is edgy and hectic.  It’s a different experience in the outer boroughs of the city.  Take Queens, for example.  Most communities are residential; the neighborhoods tend to be ethnic, and perhaps a bit xenophobic, as well.  Outsiders are easily identified and often viewed with suspicion.  Some areas have small concentrations of illegals who have reason to be concerned about interlopers with cameras.  If an unfamiliar individual were taking pictures in my neighborhood, he would almost certainly find a patrol car creeping up behind him at some point.  I think some of it also has to do with the collective mindset of the city after 9/11.

3. I see that you have a mix between color and black and white street photographs. When do you determine to shoot either in color or black and white?

"Pardon Me Comin Thru" by Michael Martin

With rare exceptions, I usually shoot everything in color and convert to black and white as needed.  I wish I could say that I have some hard and fast rule for preferring one over the other, but essentially it’s just a vague sense about which version achieves the most desired effect.  And that depends on the picture.  I love the dramatic look and the vintage feel of black and white, but I also appreciate the lively warm atmosphere that is conveyed in a vivid color photo.

4. Tell me about the most memorable street photograph that you took. Where was it and what was going through your mind?

"It's Not Going To Come Out" by Michael Martin

It changes frequently, but the most memorable are usually the ones that have led to some kind of personal interaction.  They’re not always what I consider great photos, but for me it’s the person in the picture who made the moment special, not the photo itself.  I recently had a peculiar encounter with an attractive young lady who caught me taking a picture of her on Fifth Avenue.  It’s too long to detail effectively here, but she got me when my radar was down, and for a moment I was concerned that it might turn into an unpleasant scene.  We had a short conversation.  However, she wouldn’t let me take her picture because, as she said, “it’s not going to come out.”  But as she turned to walk away, she looked over her shoulder briefly, and I got her.  It was the conversation that led up to the photo that made it memorable.

5. Looking at your images, it seems that many were taken with your 85mm. How do you prefer this focal length compared with either closer or wider lenses?

"Emerge" by Michael Martin

I think everyone has a distance at which they feel most comfortable when photographing people on the street.  The 85mm has always “felt” right for me, not too close, not too far.  Plus it’s fast, lightweight, and sharp. The drawback is that it turned me into a headhunter.  At some point I felt a need to consciously force myself to look at whole scenes through shorter, wider lenses in order to see entire bodies, rather than going for tight candid portraits all the time.  I like faces and dramatic expressions, so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a headhunter, but I had reached a point where I felt confined.  These days, I use the 35mm Nikkor mounted on my Sony NEX-5 more frequently than the 85mm on my dSLR.

6. From which photographers do you find inspiration?

"Occupation" by Michael Martin

Individual photographs often inspire me more than the people who took them.  Sometimes I don’t even know the name of the photographer, although, I tend to like documentary style photographs.  Of those who are well known, the dramatic power of Dorothea Lange’s Depression Era photos has always moved me.  People like Helen Leavitt, Roy DeCarava, Berenice Abbott, and Lewis Hine are also among my favorites.  Contemporaries would have to include the New York City subway shots of Travis Ruse.  His work made a big impression on me when I first got back into photography.

7. What do you love most about street photography?

"Everybody Hurts" by Michael Martin

It’s the alter ego thing.  It lets me become someone else.  I’m somewhat boring, reclusive, and generally avoid face-to-face social interactions.  I find superficial conversation difficult at best; at worst, painful.  Yet, when out on the street with a camera, I talk to strangers, I take pictures of people I don’t know from as close as a few feet away, head-on.  There’s an intangible thrill involved in every shot, and even if you work in the same area each day, each encounter is still a different experience.  I think there’s a definite voyeur factor, as well.  I believe you have to enjoy watching people, anticipating their movements, predicting their behavior, and understanding their motivations if you want to get the most out of this.

8.  What tips would you give to aspiring street photographers?

"Tell Me What Happened" by Michael Martin

Be confident, but not foolhardy.  Just because you have the right to take a photo doesn’t mean people won’t take action to prevent you from doing it.  Relax, try to have fun with it. If you project insecurity the reaction you receive will usually be one of suspicion.  Train yourself to see irony, paradox, and the imbalance of power within routine human interactions.  It adds another dimension to your photos.  Try to use short wide primes if you can. They force you to become a participant rather than a spectator.  Shoot at night.  It’s a whole different world out there after dark.

9. Any shout-outs that you would like to give?

"Chinatown" by Michael Martin

Sure, all of my Flickr buddies. Ourit, Renata, Zun, Minkel, Young Hee, Art, Willem, Francis, to name just a few.  And all the others who make it a great online community.




Got a question for Michael or would like to show him some love? If so, support him and leave him a comment below!

20 thoughts on “Featured Street photographer: Michael Martin from Manhattan, New York”

  1. What a great interview of my man, Mr. General Lempkin aka Michael M. Yes, he is The General.
    I have had the pleasure of shooting next to this guy and you definitely learn how to handle the street. He has a sharp human tracking system to capture splendid faces and moments during the day or at night (“the nighthawk”). I think he said it all about street photography in this part: “I believe you have to enjoy watching people, anticipating their movements, predicting their behavior, and understanding their motivations if you want to get the most out of this”.

    This man is inspirational, a great artist and a good friend of mine.

  2. Superb interview! I’ve followed and admired Michael’s work on Flickr for over a year and have always found his work inspirational. Michael is also an incredibly down-to-earth guy and has been very supportive as I’ve got into street photography myself. So it’s great to see his photography recognised in this environment and being brought to a different audience.

  3. Yes, Michael is lay-back, frequently smiling, going with the flow when walking the streets of Manhattan.
    Then suddenly he transforms into a unique sort of leopard with an imperturbable
    focus on his pray. Silently he locks on to his subject and ruthlessly shoots. Then the big smile is back, opening up to his subject. He makes street photography a joyous game for all. Always in the open, always visible. That’s the reason why he can communicate with the people he shoots: he makes them a part of his world. And very often they want to belong!
    Yes, Michael Martin is true Masterclass!!

  4. Michael is a rare breed in the street photographer category: Even though his technique, approach, and knowledge of the history of this genre are second to none, his humility, passion, and willingness to share are a breath of fresh air.

    Photography is a very ego-driven activity, and street photography especially can escalate into a competitive, even petty, affair. Michael stays above the fray, proving that one can be ruthless and focused when it comes to one’s craft, and as supportive and truly likable in person as well as a colleague. I’m honored to count him as a friend and congratulate him and you, Eric, on this insightful interview!

  5. This is a great feature, Eric! Michal Martin is a street photographer for whom I have great respect. He’s dedicated and he’s good. One of the aspects that I love most about his photographs, and about him as a person, is his loving perspective. He will always focus on what’s beautiful and positive about something or someone. I think so many of his photos reflect that!

    It’s very interesting to read that he started out feeling not quite so bold about shooting strangers on the street. This little fact adds strong dimension to the kind of street photographer that he is. He’s a courageous one, who went against himself in order to be greater. And now that he’s made it, he shares this courage with us via his photographs!

    He’s my dear friend and mentor, and I am lucky for it!

  6. good questions and interesting answers. it’s interesting to see how different people’s approaches to street photography can be. michael’s use of color is fantastic, especially with “move” and “emerge”. sometimes color makes the deep shadows even more dramatic.

  7. I’m a huge fan of Michael’s work and look to him for inspirations. It’s a real treat to be able to hear him speak about this work. Wonderful interview!!!

  8. Michael provides for the Flickr community not only inspiration with his beautiful and varied offerings, but also great support through his comments, observations and critiques of other’s images. In the article he mentions his disdain for “small talk” and this translates in his images. There is no fluff, only substance – nutritious and wholesome. He has intelligence, wisdom and compassion that he is not afraid to share. Thanks to you, Eric. for spotlighting him. Thanks to you, Michael, for your friendship and support…for the bar that you set and keep so many of us reaching for.

  9. Sigurd van Quacksalver

    I could really learn to hate this cat — and I’m a quick study, if not two stanzas shy a bad limerick — but for my fear that holding such sentiments generally kills people. (A word of caution: If you’re ever approached by a swarthy dude offering you deals in a thick Aramaic accent, run for your soul! Any fork in the road will do just fine. Sadly, I’m already damned.) So, you see, I just can’t hate the guy. I mean, uh, I can’t very well rip-off his style if he ain’t around — you dig? Perhaps not. Let me try another tact. It’s rare (and even I’m surprised) that I see through another photographer’s vision something of the time-in-place that is so relevant, so genuinely my own feeling, that I nary need bother with taking pictures myself. (Or we could revisit my entire Robert Johnson meets Man Ray on east 23rd, maybe 47th street, and he’s the spawn of Satan, scenario.) It’s nearly pointless (like long division and growing your own lettuce) if the net result is ultimately the same result. But herein lies the rub: The more I view Micheal’s work, the more I’m moved to attaining a state of something — anything — definitively “my style”. And wouldn’t it be better, to be who I am then to be just like Mike, and possibly putting the kibosh — or worse — on him in the process? Besides which, if I ever got that good, I’d have to go on a self-loathing jag. Now where’s the fun in that? No, it’s preferable, I feel, to study Micheal’s images and try, I mean really try, to convey as much in my own work, and with as little need for qualification and explanation as his output. It would just be good — not banal or mediocre — and that’s enough. And if I could learn somewhere along the way to that end, not to be troubled by envy for his talent then maybe that nagging pain he’s been feeling in his lower back might go away. Damn my dark powers! (Listen, I was young. I was offered eternal youth and a Nikon F. Maybe I was a little drunk. Hey, I’m sorry…)

  10. I’ve never been to NY but going through Micheal’s photostream makes me feel like I know the city…every day something new, little by little…
    He’s famous for his 85mm shots but i do like his 35mm approach even better!
    Keep up the good work, mate!

  11. I’m so happy for Michael that he’s getting this recognition. There’s a lot of people on Flickr who just shoot into the crowd and then call themselves “Street Photographers” Michael’s images really say something, show emotion and tell a story. He’s the real deal.

  12. Stephen Zacharias

    Hey I really enjoyed reading the interview and reviewing some of your images. Michael has always been supportive and willing to respond to any questions about street photography even though I do very little of it. Truly and gentleman and glad to have met him online thru the Flickr community.

  13. I got to know Michael through his images only last year on flickr and I feel like I’ve known him for years. His honesty and sensitivity to life on the street knows no bounds. As seen in these images, he knows how to connect with the heartbeat of the people he sees. The poignant moments he’s discovered abound and impress without really trying. As a viewer, you know he knows what he’s shooting about. His night work is amongst the best out there.

    Although I’ve never been on a shoot with Michael, I can imagine that he silently mumbles, “Pardon me coming through” because there is no “shadow of doubt” that the “discretions” he discovers “emerge” and “move” your heart to respond in some way to his discovered moments. It has become his pre-“occupation” to see how “everyone hurts” whether they’re walking in Times Square or hanging out in “Chinatown”. His photographs often ask the viewer to “tell me how me what happen” or “it’s not going to come out”.

    Eric you struck gold here. This man knows how to shoot with his heart. He allows life to breathe through his images.

  14. Pingback: How to Become a Fearless Street Photographer — Eric Kim Street Photography

  15. i’m a couple of months late to this, my girlfriend was googling my name and came across this blog.

    thanks for the shot-out in the beginning of your interview michael. i’ve been away from flickr so long, but i still get a kick from seeing your work in manhattan. i remember the beginning shots, of the parades and what not and then the transformation. it was a pleasure to see your work grow and i know i’ve walked past by you in soho last year.

    anyway, great interview and i hope to run into you in manhattan next time sir.

    mr eric, you’ve got yourself a great street photographer there.


    bradford kim

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